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Iraqis flock to Kurdistan to beat the summer heat

Long the bane of many in the south and the centre of the country, Iraq's annual summer heat wave has been a boon for the northern Kurdish region, which is seeing a tourism boom this summer.

SHAQLAWAH, Iraq (AFP) – Securing a hotel room is a challenge in the town of Shaqlawah, northeast of the autonomous region's capital Arbil.
"It took us several hours just to find a hotel," said 24-year-old Ali Hussein, who was visiting the hillside town with his friends from Baghdad.
"There have been many more tourists than usual this year," said Saroud Qader, the owner of the Qasr Dhia (Dhia Palace) hotel where Hussein eventually booked a room.
"We are fully booked until Ramadan," the 64-year-old said, referring to the holy Muslim fasting month that begins in mid-August this year and ends in mid-September.
Throngs of Iraqi tourists have begun making the trip to Kurdistan, attracted by cooler climates -- temperatures regularly top 50 degree Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital, with the mercury rising still further in south Iraq -- and a level of security not present in the rest of the country.
According to Mawli Jabbar, an official in the Kurdish region's Tourism Office, 191,000 Iraqi tourists visited the three provinces that make up Kurdistan in 2009.
"By our preliminary estimates, that figure will be 20 percent higher this year," he said.
The often unbearable levels of heat are coupled with widespread electricity shortages.
Iraq's daily power generation falls several thousand megawatts short of demand in the summer, and most Iraqis have to make do with between two and four hours of electricity a day.
Only those with access to their own generators and fuel have been able to refrigerate food or air-condition their homes around the clock.
Fury over the lack of improvement in electricity infrastructure in recent years triggered street protests, with the government warning that two more years of power shortages lie ahead, as there was no quick fix to the problem.
And so, for those who can afford it, some measure of respite lies in Kurdistan.
Ebtihaj Abdulkhoder's family, who live in the main southern port city of Basra, did not hesitate to make the 800-kilometre (497-mile) trip to take refuge from the brutal heat in Shaqlawah, which lies wedged between the Suruk and Safin mountains, each of which top 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) in height.
"At first, we thought we would come here just for a few days," the mother-of-four said.
"But now, we are going to stay here for as long as we can."
"The temperatures in Basra and in Kurdistan cannot be compared, and here, along with the good weather, there is plenty of greenery and waterfalls."
As a result of the multitude of tourists, Shaqlawah in the summer is overtaken by a form of mayhem rarely seen in post-invasion Iraq: packed cafes, parks overrun with visitors, and the air filled with popular Arabic and Kurdish music.
The town is one of several in Kurdistan now frequented by Iraqi Arab tourists, who use it as a base for day trips to see the waterfalls of Gali Ali Beg and Bekhal, or the spring near Jundyan, all within 100 kilometres (60 miles).
The region also attracts foreign tourists who are unable to visit the rest of the country due to security concerns -- Baghdad and the ancient sites of Ur and Babylon are widely considered off-limits.
Flights connect several European countries to Arbil and the region's second major city, Sulaimaniyah.
Travel for Iraqi Arabs to Kurdistan has also eased: they required a Kurdish sponsor to enter the region during the country's sectarian conflict from 2005 to 2008, but now only need to fill out a form and provide a photograph.
In the words of Yas Ahmed, a 27-year-old visitor from Baghdad: "For now, Kurdistan is Iraq's tourist destination."

 

Jul 31, 2010 09:45

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